Congenital heart disease (CHD) is a defect in the heart’s structure that’s present at birth. It can be detected before birth, soon after birth or anytime throughout life. There are many kinds of CHD. Symptoms and treatment depend on the type of defect and its severity. A person with CHD should see a cardiologist regularly throughout life.
Congenital heart disease (CHD) is a defect or problem with the heart’s structure that’s present at birth, such as:
Some cases of CHD are simple and may not cause any symptoms, but others can be life-threatening and require treatment.
Heart defects may be detected early (before a baby is born or shortly afterward). But sometimes, CHD isn’t diagnosed until childhood, adolescence or adulthood.
CHD is the most common type of birth defect, affecting 8 to 9 per 1,000 live births.
There are two main groups of CHD: cyanotic congenital heart disease and acyanotic congenital heart disease.
Cyanotic (low oxygen in the blood) congenital heart disease
Cyanotic congenital heart disease involves heart defects that reduce the amount of oxygen delivered to the rest of the body. This is sometimes called a critical congenital heart defect. Babies born with cyanotic congenital heart disease usually have low levels of oxygen and need surgery. Examples include:
Acyanotic (blood oxygen level is acceptable) congenital heart disease
Acyanotic congenital heart disease involves a defect that causes blood to pump through the body abnormally. For example:
Symptoms may start as soon as a baby is born or may not appear until later in life. They can include:
The signs and symptoms vary widely, depending on:
CHD happens when the fetal heart doesn’t develop correctly in the uterus. Scientists don’t fully understand why that happens, but it may be related to:
Sometimes a heart defect is found before a baby is born. If your healthcare provider finds anything unusual during a routine prenatal ultrasound, you and the fetus may need further testing. For example, a fetal echocardiogram uses sound waves to create pictures of the fetal heart.
Other heart defects are found soon after a baby is born. For example, cyanotic CHD is often detected by pulse oximetry. The simple, painless test uses sensors on the fingers or toes to find out if oxygen levels are too low. Sometimes, congenital heart disease isn’t diagnosed until later in life.
Tests that can help diagnose CHD in newborns, children or adults include:
Some cases of CHD may heal themselves. Others may remain but don’t require any treatment while others must be treated soon after birth.
Anyone with a heart defect should see a heart specialist (cardiologist) regularly throughout their life. Be sure the cardiologist has training and expertise in congenital heart defects.
Treatment for CHD may involve:
Adults with congenital heart disease may develop certain health problems later in life. They can limit your ability to perform everyday tasks and shorten your life span. Examples include:
It’s important to see a cardiologist regularly to monitor your heart and prevent or treat complications. Treatment will depend on the type of heart defect you have and how it’s affecting you personally.
Scientists don't have all the answers yet as to what causes heart defects other than random gene mutations. But, there are things that place you at higher risk (smoking, alcohol, certain medications, etc.) and these should be avoided during pregnancy. There are otherwise no proven strategies to prevent CHD.
You should follow your healthcare provider’s instructions during pregnancy, including:
The outlook for people with congenital heart disease depends on the type of defect and its severity. Although serious cases can be life-threatening, many people with CHD live long, relatively normal and fulfilling lives. Decades ago, only 10% of children with CHD survived into adulthood. Advances in diagnosis and treatment now help about 90% survive.
To keep your heart as healthy as possible and prevent complications of ACHD:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Congenital heart disease is a defect in the heart’s structure that’s present at birth. It can be detected before a baby is born, soon after birth, or any time during childhood or adulthood. If you or your baby have a heart defect, it’s important to see a cardiologist who specializes in CHD. You should visit the cardiologist regularly throughout life to monitor the condition and keep the heart as healthy as possible.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/13/2021.
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